While much of the attention on “Happy Feet” has been focused on the CG toon’s look, those eponymous tapping feet required major effort from the sound team.
Savion Glover provided the tap-dancing for lead penguin, Mumble. Both his movements and the sound of his taps were recorded on a motion-capture stage.
“It was the first time with motion-capture that you were also recording live,” says sound designer Wayne Pashley. “Each take of motion-capture was given a marker board and put into dailies as per traditional film practice.”
The process demanded overcoming some major obstacles. The first, says Pashley, was that, “Because he’s a virtuoso, you basically got one shot at recording him.” Pashley’s team put microphones on Glover’s boots while following him with a boom mike as well.
The next was that Glover’s “instrument” is an American oak floor, where the penguin in the film would have to tap on ice and snow. “All the subtleties of (Glover’s) performance had to be reinterpreted as ice and snow. So we got lots of samples of ice, snow and slush, all the different varying Antarctic surfaces, and put them in on top of his wooden taps. It was an enormous job to do that and to gain his approval as well.
“That became the whole premise of the percussion track of the musical numbers. From there, the composer took those taps and built the music around it.”
It wasn’t the only unusual task that faced Pashley and the “Happy Feet” team. The film’s background sound was live recordings of real Antarctic penguins, seals and the like. To make sure the voice tracks matched the background sound, Pashley’s team, in what may be a first, recorded the actors with outdoor mikes, even though they were working indoors in a studio.
“It was a risk, because I was aware that in most animations, they would never use microphones like this. They use very warm microphones,” he says. “But using an outdoor shotgun mike, we’re recording from 3 feet away. That gives air and also freedom of movement for the performers.”
Filmmakers also recorded the cast together, rather than separately, without total isolation. The upside: “We had complete cast interactivity” Pashley says. But that meant that each voice track had overlap from the others, which proved to be a lot of work in editing, says Pashley, “But it did give a complete flow to the film.”